Historical Highlight: Milton Hebald

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

The role of art is to make a world which can be inhabited.

– William Saroyan, 1908-1981

One of the things that is constantly confirmed by FWMoA’s own 100-year history is that humans, from the very beginning, have known that art has the power to transform our lives. This hasn’t been lost on me or my co-workers during the past months of the pandemic. We know that the museum is important to our own mental and emotional health as we work to provide art to lift and restore our visitors’ wellbeing. For example, every day as I come into work, walk by the front desk, and turn toward my office in the library, I pass Adagio (pictured below), and feel a bit lighter for having seen her.

As we launch our second century, we look forward to continuing to provide transformational art experiences. Throughout 2021, our visitors will be treated to an array of permanent collection works not often seen through a monthly, rotating exhibit in the Loretta Foellinger Teeple Gallery. Curated from the decade in which the work was collected, additional exhibitions will be featured throughout the rest of the museum as usual and, at the same time, old favorites will be in their usual places, including Milton Hebald’s Adagio.

A bronze sculpture of a dancer, twirling on one foot. Her right arm is raised in the air and holds the end of a fabric that is unfurling from her skirt. Naked from the waist up, her left arm forms a diagonal line. Her face is turned away from the viewer, and her hair, pulled up, is blown in the wind that also twirls the fabric.
Milton Hebald, American, 1917-2015. Adagio. Bronze, 1999. On loan to Arts United from Phyllis and Richard Shoaff and the Shoaff Family, TD297. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Adagio, as you may know, is the title of the lovely figure who greets everyone who enters the museum’s atrium. She is the lithe, pony-tailed dancer, frozen in a twirl, arm raised toward the sky while she steps securely on one foot, and a breeze lifts her scarf in an arc behind her. Made of bronze but lighter than air, Adagio is a friendly, playful, life-affirming sprite. She was made by Milton Hebald in 1999, and was given to Arts United by Phyllis and Thomas Richard Shoaff as a long-term loan.

I had to look up the word “adagio” before starting this post. It’s a musical term that means “at a slow tempo”. In ballet, it describes a slow, controlled movement — a passage that requires strength, grace, and the discipline to perform perfectly at a slow pace. Adagio seems a perfect direction for these times as we enter a new year and a new phase that will require hard work and deliberate steps to tackle immense challenges. Strength and grace — traits we can all aspire to in 2021 as we work on healing and rebuilding.

Milton Hebald (1917-2015), born on May 24, 1917, was the son of Polish immigrants and raised in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood. Hebald’s father, Nathan, native of Kracow, Poland, was shot and killed when his jewelry store was robbed by members of the Little Augie gang in the early 1920s. Milton was only six at the time. Hebald, his mother, and sister lived for several years at 97th Street and Madison Avenue, where Milton became the neighborhood celebrity artist, often found on the sidewalk in front of their apartment building making large sidewalk drawings in colored chalk. He joked about his art education, saying that “I learned it in the streets.” 

When he was 8, his drawing of the Manhattan skyline was featured in McCreery’s Juvenile Magazine, a New York department store publication. He learned that he was meant to be a sculptor at the age of 8 or 9 when a friend gave him a box of colored modeling clay, and he found great satisfaction in the molding of three-dimensional figures.

Hebald was a young New Yorker with plenty of chutzpah — he got acquainted with established local artists when he was just a kid, asking for and receiving studio tours. He and his sisters often visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), which he considered his own personal museum! He won numerous art awards and prizes while in grammar school, including the Saint-Gaudens Medal from the School Art League which also earned him a scholarship. He was the youngest student, at ten, to study at the Student Art League— so young that the matronly model refused to sit nude for someone the same age as her own child. As a teenager, he taught art to immigrants as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration for $22.80 a week.

Hebald, iwhile in high school, continued his art education at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, the National Academy of Design, and later taught at the Cooper Union and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. When he wasn’t in art classes, he was copying Old Master drawings at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street or observing and drawing human dissections at the Flower Hospital. His art focus took its toll on other studies though, and he dropped out of high school before the end of his senior year. This was not a stumbling block in Milton’s path. At seventeen, he got a studio in Waverly Place in exchange for showing apartments to potential tenants and “keeping bums out of the building”. At 20, he had already had a one-man show at Manhattan’s A.C.A. Galleries in November 1937. A critic for The New York Post wrote, “Everything he touches, whether it be plaster, stone, wood or bronze is impressed with an extraordinary sculptural sense.”  He sold his first piece from this show — a marble torso of a boy.

From here he leapt to exhibiting at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and in Philadelphia and Chicago. But this was the 1930s, and additional work was required for survival. Hebald worked as a department store display model maker and in defense work as a molder for submarine and aircraft parts. Through deliberation and luck, his work always seemed to dovetail with and enhance his art making efforts. While working for defense companies on Long Island during the war, he developed his own process for making airplane parts — one that he continued to use for decades in his sculpting. This involved cutting and carving plaster in modules that would later be cast in wax, then bronze, and then brazed together. He also enjoyed working in wood, terra cotta, and Plasticine.

During the war years, he continued at Republic Aviation, honored when chosen to cast the trophy for the First Fighter Air Force Gunnery and Bomber Meet in 1945. He wrote about the experience in “Sculptor in an Airplane Factory”, Magazine of Art, October 1944. Drafted in 1945, he served a year at Camp Lee, Virginia. He continued making models of weapons and training gear while serving. 

A radical shift after the war took Hebald to Coney Island to an enterprise that made wedding cake toppers, kewpie dolls, and mermaids from plaster. Unfortunately, his partner took him for everything he had invested — all of his savings.

In 1955, a life-changing event occurred for Hebald — he won the Prixe-de-Rome fellowship from the American Academy in Rome with his piece, The Wind. Rome became his home for the next 50 years.

A close-up of Adagio.
Milton Hebald, American, 1917-2015. Adagio. Bronze, 1999. On loan to Arts United from Phyllis and Richard Shoaff and the Shoaff Family, TD297. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

For Hebald, Rome was one massive, collective work of art. In Rome, “I got insight into the background of sculpture for the first time. I saw how sculpture fits into its environment. My point of view took a radical change,” he said. Hebald’s mentor, in spirit, was Gian Lorenzo Bernini, giant of the Baroque era. Though he lived and worked centuries earlier, his flourishes, billowing drapery, literary subjects, and drama are reflected in Hebald’s modern, fluid figures. Hebald’s figures, whether solitary or portrayed in couples or groups, have a timeless humanity and emotion in them, and a lively story-telling vitality. Adagio proves this in her exuberant, yet gentle demeanor, letting us know that the dance of life goes on, that spring is coming.

“The real emotions, the ones that count, are emotions in relation to other human beings. These can be translated into sculpture. People have been doing it for centuries.”

In the late 1950s, Hebald began working on his most monumental sculpture, Zodiac Screen for the Pan Am Terminal (renamed Worldport in 1971) at New York’s International Idlewild (presently JFK) Airport which opened on May 24, 1960. Twelve massive bronze zodiac figures were mounted on a 220-foot screen of steel and contoured glass panels that acted as a screen wrapped around the front of the ultra-modern structure. The astrological symbols could be viewed from both sides of the glass, each view was unique. Hebald said that he wanted to create a work that would inspire strength and confidence in travelers in the exciting new era of jet travel.  He felt that the zodiac signs, drawn from the heavens, were apt symbols for flight and the cosmos that also embraced the spirit of the ethereal, futuristic architecture of the terminal.

Facade of the Pan Am Worldport Terminal at JFK airport showing Zodiac Screen by Milton Heblad, 1917-2015. Image courtesy of Panam.org.

For more than 30 years, this work greeted international travelers as they touched down in Queens, New York. Sadly, when Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991, the company’s assets, including Zodiac Screen, were scattered. The terminal became the property of Delta Airlines; Zodiac Screen the property of the Port Authority New York New Jersey.  The dismantled sculpture and glass panels still languish in a hangar – 30 years later. Ironically, the Pan Am terminal’s opening and closing both fell upon Hebald’s birthday. This remarkable building with its “flying saucer” roof was demolished in 2013. Before his death in 2015, Hebald lobbied for the conservation and reinstallation of Zodiac Screen to no avail. Hebald stated, “I could never be more proud of one of my creations.” [Pan Am’s Worldport and Milton Hebald’s Zodiac”, by Michael Manning; Airways September, 2013]

Facade of the Pan Am Worldport Terminal at JFK airport showing Zodiac Screen by Milton Heblad, 1917-2015. Image courtesy of Remembering Pan Am Worldport on Facebook.

Hebald’s long, prolific life is one of many more tales and creations. Next time you visit us, take a cue from Adagio and slow down for a moment, maybe do a slow twirl, with a little smile on your face. Spring is coming.

Come visit FWMoA to see Hebald’s Adagio Tuesday-Saturday: 10:00am-5:00pm; Thursday: 10:00am-8:00pm, and Sunday 12:00pm-5:00pm.

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